One thing we can all learn from anime is to never judge a book by its cover – or in this case, a series by its art style. Some anime seem questionable from the title (I’m looking at you, Higehiro: I Shaved. Then I Brought a High School Girl Home), but are actually very wholesome at the core. Others appear innocent at first, but suddenly you’re rushing to turn down the volume. The most impactful of them all is when you watch a new anime expecting to see cute characters doing cute things, but after a few episodes, you find yourself sobbing or having nightmares. This type, in particular, has a special place in my heart, so here is a recommendation list for 7 deceivingly dark anime that will always remain in my memory – in both a loving and traumatizing way. The list is spoiler free and the titles are randomly listed.
Dark Anime Recommendations
Ranking of Kings
Based on a web manga by Toka Sousuke and produced by the amazing WIT Studio, Ranking of Kings follows a tiny deaf prince named Bojji who aims to follow in his father’s footsteps and become the next king. However, his great physical weaknesses and insecurities stop him from earning the trust and kindness of his cruel peers. Along with his new friend Kage, who is a member of the hated Shadow Clan, he sets on a journey to become stronger.
Sounds simple enough, right? That’s what many thought until they witnessed the anime’s crazy plot twists, brutal battles, and heartbreaking scenes that could make any viewer tear up. Without spoiling, all I can say is you don’t want to be in any of the characters’ shoes.
As the cherry on top, this series also has incredibly catchy openings and endings. All four of them made the top 6 most streamed anime themes of Fall 2021 and Winter 2022 on Spotify, and their sequences come with top-notch, beautiful, and symbolic animation. If you have an open mind and enjoy themes of action, fantasy, and brotherhood, you should definitely check out Ranking of Kings on Crunchyroll. A sequel has recently been announced as well!
Made in Abyss
With the second season airing and impressing fans right now, of course, I have to mention Made in Abyss. Based on a manga by Akihito Tsukushi, the story follows a young and adventurous girl named Riko and her friend Reg who share a mission of exploring the depths of the massive underground Abyss and finding Riko’s missing mother. People who enter the Abyss are unable to return, and descending causes worse effects on the body the lower one goes – while ascending at all can cause fatal damage. To top it all off, Reg also isn’t human and he seems to have come from the depths of the Abyss itself. This doesn’t stop the two, as they venture on and encounter new comrades and other threats along the way.
From the basic information above, you can probably guess this show gets quite dark. And when you watch it and think it can’t possibly get any darker – trust me, it always does. Made in Abyss has horror value in quite a few ways, but the psychological aspect is where it takes the cake. With its many interesting mysteries, unique characters, and tragic backstories, this anime will sweep you off your feet and break your heart in the best way.
If this fits your taste so far, I recommend watching Season 1, then skipping the two recap movies, then watching the third movie (Dawn of the Deep Soul), and then moving on to the second season. All of this can be found on HiDive.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica
You’ve heard of the magical girl/maho shoujo genre which encompasses classics like Sailor Moon and Tokyo Mew Mew, but Madoka Magica pioneered a newer, niche subgenre under that umbrella, now common in many manga and a few anime: dark magical girl. Produced by studio Shaft (yes, there are head-tilt scenes) as one of the most memorable shows of 2011, even referenced in the hit American TV show Euphoria, the anime revolves around middle school friends Madoka and Miki whose lives turn upside down after they meet a mysterious cat-like creature named Kyubey and a transfer student named Homura. In exchange for Kyuubey granting any wish they desire, they must become magical girls and fight witches in a different bizarre universe. All of this is fun at first, but Madoka and Miki later learn that getting everything they hoped for is too good to be true.
The dark, inspiring, and creepy elements of this original anime are well-complimented by the show’s iconic opening “Connect” by ClariS (which you may have heard without even watching it) and its one-of-a-kind ending song “Mata Ashita” by the famous Aoi Yuuki and “Magia” by Kalafina. If you’re interested in intense battles within a cryptic universe, like good-old-fashioned moe, and don’t mind a bittersweet story, I highly suggest you watch Madoka Magica. It’s available on Crunchyroll on Hulu.
To what extent would you suffer in order to save the world?
Another dark magical girl anime is Yuki Yuna Is a Hero. With 3 original seasons, the story follows the kind and justice-driven Yuna and her close friends Mimori, Fuu, Itsuki, and later Karin, who are part of a middle school “Hero Club” that does helpful activities for the community like performing shows for children. Their duties for the club are dramatically changed when they’re suddenly called to defeat unknown catastrophic forces called Vertexes by becoming magical girls and using their mighty new powers. Happy to help save the world together, the girls take on the challenge – but later discover that the use of these supernatural powers comes at a great cost.
We’re talking deep friendships. We’re talking suffering. And we’re talking epic one-of-a-kind battles that will blow you away. If you’re interested now, you can watch season 1 on Crunchyroll or the full series on HiDive.
About 19 minutes into the first episode, School-Live! seems like your typical moe slice-of-life series about adorable girls slacking off at school – but when it first aired back in 2015, the final minute blew everyone away and introduced a horror story executed in a way no one had seen before. While the anime does revolve around 4 cute students (Yuki, Kurumi, Miki, and Yuuri) inhabiting campus as part of their “School Living Club”, living does not come so easy when they are faced with a struggle for survival. I won’t spoil the antagonists for you but be alarmed that School-Live!, originally a manga written by Norimitsu Kaihou and illustrated by Sadoru Chiba, is much more than what meets the eye. Its well-written character development, intense story, heartwarming scenes, and short length make it a very worthy title to binge. The show is available on Crunchyroll and HiDive.
Happy Sugar Life
With a title this innocent, how dark could the anime be? The answer is: very. Originally a short manga by Tomiyaki Kagisora, the story follows a beautiful high-school student named Sato who has a reputation for sleeping with random men – that is, until she falls in love for the first time with a younger girl named Shio. The secret to the public, the two are infatuated with each other and begin living in Sato’s apartment together. As troubles arise with keeping Shio away from her family and the rest of the world, Satou takes desperate measures in order to maintain their “happy sugar life”.
For those who are okay with shoujo-ai and liked the yandere aspect of Future Diary, this is the anime for you. With intense cliffhangers, untraditional romance, and a surprising ending, Happy Sugar Life promises one wild ride. You can watch it on Amazon Prime Video.
Selector Infected WIXOSS
Perhaps the most unheard-of series on this list and arguably the most underrated is Selector Infected WIXOSS. An original title produced during J.C. Staff’s best days, the anime follows a close friend group consisting of Yuuko, Yuzuki, and Hitoe, who bond over their love for a popular trading card game called WIXOSS. Don’t let me lose you there – they play card games, but it’s not like Yu-Gi-Oh. This is a story focused on friendship, dreams, and tragedy.
Each girl finds out she has an “avatar card” as part of her deck called an LRIG, with a magical girl strangely living inside each of them. They also discover that they have now become “Selectors”, chosen to play a 3D live-action version of the game in a separate world for a chance to have their greatest wish in life fulfilled. But there’s a catch; if a player loses battles 3 times, her life will be destroyed. As the girls’ personal interests conflict and they meet horrifying opponents, Ruuko, Yuzuki, and Hitoe unwrap the sinister mysteries behind WIXOSS and discover the truth about LRIGs.
On top of an interesting premise, this anime delivers some of the most special opening and endings songs you will ever hear. You can watch the series on Funimation.
Dark Anime – Worth Checking Out
If you’re looking for a unique show to surprise you and blow your mind, the titles on this list might perfectly fit your criteria. Even now knowing a bit more about them, I’m confident the events that unfold will still shock you. Oftentimes, people don’t watch these expecting to love them – I admit I didn’t for most – but give it a few episodes, and you may find your new favorite series. I hope you enjoy these anime recommendations!